Winter Issue — February 2008
Making Computers More Human
Computers that Convey the Sense of Touch
by Laura CzekajEver wonder why your computer doesn’t give you a hug? How about a slap on the back for a job well done? Computers have evolved over time to become effective and efficient tools, even integral parts of our daily lives. Yet there is one vital component missing—the human touch.
“As advanced as we think they are, computers are still in their infancy in terms of providing a sense of touch,” says Abdulmotaleb El Saddik, director of the Multimedia Communications Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa.
Video conferencing may bring people together visually for example, but the handshake that could seal the business deal is impossible with current technologies. A parent away from home is as yet unable to comfort a sobbing child with a reassuring touch on the shoulder while communicating over the Internet.
“With the Internet today there is no faraway place because you can be connected and you see and talk—what is missing is the sense of touch,” says El Saddik, who holds the University Research Chair in Ambient Interactive Media and Applications. “Some scientists would rank touch in the topmost level of our senses.”
El Saddik and his team are studying how haptics, the science of touch, can be transmitted over the Internet and synchronized with audio and visual data streams to provide realistic interactions between people.
Not unlike something out of a science-fiction movie, the researchers are constructing wearable devices equipped with sensory transmitters that would allow computer users to reach out and literally touch someone. The astonishing and futuristic interdisciplinary project is a collaborative effort of uOttawa and the Darmstadt University of Technology in Germany.
By grasping the subtlest nuances of certain technologies, El Saddik has become a heavyweight in scientific circles. His international prominence in the field of computer science and engineering recently earned him the prestigious Friedrich Willhelm Bessel Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Germany.
This elite award is yet another acknowledgement of the worldwide interest in the type of hands-on research being conducted in the MCRLab, says graduate student Mauricio Orozco. Since becoming involved in the project in 2003, Orozco has come to realize its potential to bring people together. “It’s another tool to help people interact with each other and perform everyday tasks,” he says.
Haptics have already made their way into video game systems equipped with rudimentary transmitters meant to immerse the player in the computer-animated world. El Saddik envisions many more usages for this type of science, listing off medicine and business to name a few.
There are already examples of haptics popping up in items such as iPods and bank machines. In five to 10 years, our everyday experiences will become much more tactile, predicts El Saddik.
Computers may be getting in touch with our feelings, but El Saddik says Hollywood is way off the mark by suggesting they could out evolve their makers.
“Computers are getting to where they should be—to support our lives, but they will never replace us,” he says.